A Call for Education Companies to ‘Step Up’ in the Wake of Bleak National Test Results

Staff Writer

In the wake of new national test scores that show historic declines in math and reading achievement levels, education company leaders are renewing calls for the industry to rise to the challenge and help teachers accelerate student learning.

The results, based on an assessment of more than 108,000 4th graders and more than 111,000 8th graders in every state, are the first National Assessment of Educational Progress scores collected since 2019, given that the pandemic postponed the biannual test from 2021 to the spring of 2022.

The findings offer new insight into exactly how much ground schools need to make up in order to bring students back to grade level and even what sort of support elementary and middle school teachers directly need in reading and math.

For companies that serve K-12 schools, these insights are likely to inform new strategies, products, and trainings focused on helping students recover academically.

During the pandemic, companies have rushed to offer an array of new products to schools, in curriculum, assessment, professional development, and tutoring, though district officials often struggle to judge the effectiveness and long-term value of those tools.

Overall, the national and state-level snapshot solidifies a picture presented in other, smaller-scale assessments: that the country is experiencing sweeping academic declines that span family income levels, gender, race, academic subjects, and grade level.

EdWeek Market Brief spoke with leaders in the K-12 industry about the results and what they means for companies attempting to develop products in curriculum, assessment, professional development, and other areas that help students rebuild academically.

“I hope what these sobering data do is that they allow us to have conversations about what is needed in the classroom at a deeper level of engagement and discourse,” said Kristen Huff, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates.

A ‘Grim Picture’

Eileen Murphy Buckley, CEO of the digital literacy platform ThinkCERCA, said she was expecting to see steep declines in student achievement, considering both pre-pandemic trends and learning disruptions during COVID. Even so, she said the new national results paint a “grim picture.” 

Student scores on the NAEP fell back to being on par with scores in the 1990s, Education Week reported — the biggest drop in math performance in both 4th and 8th grade since the testing program began in 1990. And about a third of students in both grades couldn’t read at the “basic” achievement level, the lowest on the test.

According to NAEP, average scores in math dropped 5 points, to 236 out of 500, in 4th grade, and 8 points, to 274, in 8th grade. In reading, both 4th and 8th grades fell three points.

Just one of bleak takeaways is that fewer than 3 out of 5 4th grade students can tell whether whole numbers are even or odd—down from 67 percent before the pandemic. And just over half understand that subtraction is the inverse of addition, according to Education Week.

Plus, significantly more 4th grade students weren’t able to make simple inferences about story characters or plot. And more 8th graders couldn’t identify or provide support for their judgments about an author’s intent in a fictional character’s motivation.

Doubling Down on Acceleration

In order to combat those losses, Buckley advocates for companies and schools continuing to hold students to high expectations and giving them access to grade-level texts and resources, even if the student isn’t at grade-level proficiency — an approach known as acceleration.

The key is to provide scaffolding — or additional supports — to those students along the way, she said.

“It’s like weightlifting. If you never lift anything heavy, you never build any muscles,” Buckley said. “The same is true of literacy.”

One of those scaffolds can include tutoring, which sets aside time to revisit fundamentals students miss. The best tutoring should focus on key concepts, which then make other skills that build on those concepts easier, said Anthony Salcito, chief institution business officer at Nerdy, the parent company of tutoring provider Varsity Tutors, in an email.

For example, he said, mastering fractions sets a foundation for a slew of other math standards.

“If we understand the precise concept or issue that’s holding them up, even 30 minutes can have a profound impact and help set them on the path to learning recovery.” Salcito said.

Huff, from Curriculum Associates, said the assessment also shows that acceleration should be the focus for districts and education companies — rather than remediation that holds students back.

“We simply do not have time, nor is it that efficacious, to try to remediate every single thing that could have potentially been covered in the two years of disruption,” Huff said.

Education companies should keep in mind that to effectively support this kind of acceleration, they need to provide not only high-quality materials, but training for teachers on exactly how to implement their products in new ways to accelerate learning, Huff said.

Districts may already have tools at their disposal for accelerating learning, she added, but they need to be shown how to modify those tools to meet students where they are at.

Professional Development Must Address Equity

Quality professional development for educators has to be woven throughout instruction and be delivered with equity in mind, said Lacey Robinson, president and CEO of PD provider UnboundEd.

Strong PD is especially important in this unprecedented moment because it allows teachers to unpack curriculum to better understand the roadmap it creates for their students. It also should encourage teachers to examine their beliefs and expectations for students, Robinson said. Academic acceleration for students, she said, can’t occur without a commitment to both of those things.

The NAEP data shows that the pandemic closed academic disparities in some subjects and grade levels while widening them in others, Education Week reported. But Robinson saw reason to be especially troubled by the persistent disparities across racial-ethnic groups.

“It is appalling that we are still contending with this sort of opportunity gap when it comes to brown and black students and the proficiency around reading and mathematics,” Robinson said.

It’s more urgent than ever that education companies, communities, and schools put aside political rhetoric that has sown controversy over issues of diversity and equity to focus on academics, Robinson said.

“There is hope when we continue to use the cycles of professional learning to better support our practitioners and leaders,” she said. “We have to ignite that hope to be able to invite people to our teaching and leading core and to continue to propel us forward.”

Will Evidence Be Paramount?

The steep declines in reading and math performance could lead some districts to reevaluate how they judge products and make purchasing decisions, predicted Buckley, of ThinkCERCA.

Districts may have heavily based decisions to date on whether or not teachers like a product, she said. Now, with so much on the line academically and federal relief dollars to spend, she believes districts will more heavily factor a product’s evidence into decisions.

“District leaders are reminding each other that they have to think about the educational [return on investment] of every dime they spend,” she said.

“There is a pure accountability rhetoric around that. For that reason, there’s a lot of support around using efficacy-driven things.”

Education companies need to understand those needs and explain their products in a way that addresses districts’ need for measurable results and addressing learning loss across every student population, said Buckley.

“It’s going to be incumbent upon the providers to tell the story of their efficacy and how [their product] can work in a variety of communities,” she said.

Adjust Products to Meet Needs

Among the ways companies can help schools is by expanding their product lines to give teachers more tools to meet the shortcomings revealed by the scores, said Sari Factor, chief strategy officer for curriculum and educational technology provider Imagine Learning.

“It’s clear to me, and it’s clear to our company that we have to step up, because the students and teachers need us to step up,” she said. “This is an unprecedented challenge, and we have to do some things in new ways.”

Factor is optimistic next year’s results will show better academic outcomes since there’s much more stability in schools now that the pandemic has waned and most learning is happening in the classroom again.

Over the past few years, many education companies have been hired by school districts with an historic wave of emergency federal aid — about $190 billion in all — a portion of which is support to be used for learning recovery. Districts have paid for online and in-person tutoring, out-of-school academic supports, and other programs. But that federal funding is set to expire in late 2024.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO and President of online reading and math curriculum provider DreamBox Learning, emphasized the need for more tools that provide students a more “personalized” experienced in response to the new NAEP scores.

The dramatic decreases are “deeply troubling,” she said in a statement. They indicate that schools, more than ever, need “solutions that complement teacher instruction” by creating academically customized experiences and giving teachers insights into their students.

There’s more on the line than just test scores, she said.

“If we get this right, we will not only shorten the long road to recovery,” Woolley-Wilson said. “But we can inspire a lifelong love of learning for students along the way.”

EdWeek Market Brief Staff Writers Michelle Caffrey and Alexandria Ng, and Contributing Writer David Saleh Rauf contributed to this report. 

Illustration by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty.

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